GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Maybe it’s the Christmas tree decorated with empty Pabst Blue-Ribbon cans or the menacing zombies staring down from the ceiling. But one step inside Underground, Luciana and Michael Spagnola’s punk-horror-Goth-humor gift-shop, suggests this is not the usual candles and crafts store more common at the Shoppes at Smithville and Village Greene.
Underground, one of more than 60 stores in the bustling Galloway Township retail village, sells punk-rock music, posters, bumper stickers and other merchandise with a subversive sense of humor. A T-shirt with an image of Gov. Chris Christie reads, “My governor can eat your governor.”
The Ramones play over the sound system. The udead glare from posters.
“I’ve been part of the counterculture my whole life,” Michael Spagnola, 51, of Galloway Township, said. “The store definitely reflects my personality.”
Spagnola and his wife opened Underground in 2006 and have made themselves at home in Smithville after five years at a co-op in Cape May.
“It was weird there. We didn’t fit in. We don’t exactly fit in here,” he said.
Like many owner-operated businesses, the Spagnolas spend long hours at the store. Their terrier puppy, Spam, sleeps behind the counter. They sport their own clothing designs.
“We don’t do trendy. We do cool. There is a difference. Cool spans generations,” Michael Spagnola said. “Gangnam Style is trendy, but it’s not cool. James Dean is cool. Marlon Brando is cool.”
The store sells merchandise that celebrates New Jersey, albeit with a twist. Michael Spagnola, a lifelong New Jersey resident, designed his own “NJ Zombie Outbreak Response Team” logo for T-shirts and bumper stickers. The Jersey Devil also makes a regular appearance in clothing designs.
“There’s a lot of Jersey pride here. It’s a little edgier,” he said.
The shop sponsored this year’s popular Zombie Walk in the village at Halloween. More than 100 people paid to have a photo taken with Zombie Santa on a recent Saturday.
The store uses its Facebook site to market itself to customers and respond to criticism that its products or its nonconformist attitude are offensive to other businesses or the larger Smithville community.
It’s a criticism the owners take seriously.
“Some people come in here determined to get offended and won’t leave until they are,” he said.
The couple credits Shoppes at Smithville and Village Greene owner Wendie Fitzgerald for giving them latitude to express themselves through their special events and promotions.
“With some of it, I have to take a deep breath,” said Fitzgerald, who also owns the historic Colonial Inn.
“Smithville has a certain persona, but times change. We try to attract all kinds of people with all kinds of interests,” she said. “We need to draw all types of personalities.”
The village hosts events and has stores that appeal to a range of tastes, from a Children’s Festival to a Renaissance Fair to Underground’s Artwalk.
“We love Smithville. This is where we made our home,” Luciana Spagnola said. “At first, we couldn’t imagine opening a store here. Now we can’t imagine being anywhere else.”
But the shop does not kowtow to political correctness or let boorish behavior among its customers go unacknowledged. Michael Spagnola recounted how one young customer mocked and dismissed with disdain everything in the store, prompting Spagnola to post on Facebook: “It took tremendous restraint not to throw my stapler at his head.”
But Luciana and Michael Spagnola say their store is welcoming to everyone. Most people can find a gift for a relative or friend.
And since the store’s suppliers are mostly local, these products are not likely to be found elsewhere, they said.
“We’re irreverent. We’re anti-establishment,” Michael Spagnola said. “If you can find it at the mall, you probably won’t find it here.”
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